Opinion: Bill S-228 needs to be a focus for all agencies

Two Mindshare execs explain why the implications could potentially have a larger impact than CASL or AODA.
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Sarah Thompson and Laura Donaldson

Media and advertisers alike have a desire to find the right solution to stop and decrease childhood obesity. While Quebec has lived and breathed a model that has worked well in their market, we need a similar approach for all of Canada.

But Bill S-228, which will change the rules around marketing food and beverages to children, has massive implications for our industry and won’t solve the problem that Health Canada has put forward.

There are currently two parts to Bill S-228 that are of utmost importance to the marketing industry: the first is the definition of healthy and unhealthy food and the second is the audience threshold for which the ban will be measured against. The first part has major implications for brands in the definition of what Health Canada has considered healthy. Agencies and media owners will have more pressure to adhere to these definitions when advertising for their clients.

This was discussed and continues to have evolving definitions.

At this point, Bill S-228 is too vague in the details on how the legislation will be measured to predict the full economic impact; however, it would be naïve to not consider this. Canadian media owners, specifically broadcasters, have already been challenged in recent years to maintain advertising dollars with the decline of audience viewing.

For digital media owners, they will also be tasked with finding ways to prove their viewership of their audience doesn’t have children. For instance, a child can grab Mom or Dad’s iPad or laptop and digital media owners would be unable to prevent them from seeing an ad. This would result in digital publishers having restrictions and result in business failures.

For our industry, the more significant component is the audience threshold – this will be the way that advertisers are measured against the media owner’s audience. This threshold would mean the elimination of any ads being shown on a TV station and digital property with 15% or more of the audience under 13. In its current state, Bill S-228 has not taken into account the measurement gaps in the Canadian market and the need to be able to verify the audience that the ad is being displayed to. Bill S-228 is currently lacking the prescriptive details needed to have an actionable measurement and monitoring solution.

What are the implications?

In the current structure of the proposed Bill S-228, there are significant implications to the media and advertising. This will affect the entire chain of activity of marketing from ideation to execution to how we ensure we are being compliant. There is a need to educate Health Canada on how media is bought, executed and monitored over the coming months. As an industry, we will also need to prepare for the legal ramifications if an advertisement is found to violate the rules, similar to that of Quebec where agency and client is held accountable for marketing to children.

Yet collectively media, advertisers, agencies and Health Canada need to get to solutions quickly. We need something that is achievable and valuable to Canadians. It needs to be measurable and built within the construct of our industries. The implications for our industry will have a similar and potentially larger impact than CASL or AODA.

A chief concern is that there are currently no verification metrics in place in Canada to determine that the audience is under 13. The current proposal has a major impact on Canadian media owners and publishers, without addressing the impact that this will have to the international giants. This legislation continues to beg questions including:

  • How is product placement/brand-integrated content going to be monitored with the purchase of international programs to Canadian broadcasters or through OTT services, such as Netflix?
  • How are we going to ensure that an 11-year-old did not lie on their Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts to say that they were 13?
  • What happens when an eight-year-old walks in on their Mom watching an adult-focused reality TV show time and ends up watching the rest of the episode?

There are so many of these examples that it is extremely important for Health Canada to be as prescriptive in Bill S-228 to ensure a standardized compliance approach.

What needs to happen now?

We can expect this bill to reach royal assent and be implemented one year following. As such, we need to prepare and guide Health Canada into how to implement the bill. We need to solve for this together. But we also cannot ignore the issue Health Canada wants to solve. We need to work together as an industry to solve the concerns of Health Canada and be advocates to ending childhood obesity.

Together, we need to look at the problem differently and address the issue without doing irreparable harm to our media and advertising industry by removing millions of dollars, adding more complexity and process and ending jobs in production, advertising and media. How can we use the might of our industry to shape new food-related knowledge and attitude in children? Instead of imploding an industry and spending millions of dollars policing violations, we could be collectively and considerately investing into better messages for youth to help solve for the norms, attitudes and habits and be proponents of more healthy food knowledge. There is a better way forward and we need to show Health Canada that path.

Sarah Thompson is CSO and Laura Donaldson is director of marketing science at Mindshare Canada.